What does social activism mean for me?

The 6th of June 2011 at Community Health Cell on “The course of was a special day. It was an integration of questioning with experience, hope with despair, the past with the future, dreams with reality and doubts with convictions. The group ceased to be individuals but became instead a loop, an intergenerational affair, a mingling of minds, thoughts, dreams, concerns and experience.

This got me thinking. What does social activism mean for me? “It’s this” says someone. ‘It’s that’ says someone else. Is it about passion, or compassion? Is it about advocacy, or activism? Research or connectedness? Dialogues or monologues? Money or good will?

Does one be a realist, or a change agent, or a facilitator, or a leader?

“Policy’ say some. ‘Grassroots’ says another. ‘Evidence from the field’, ‘Participatory processes’, ‘Community development’, ‘Governance’ – slogans whiz around my head. Then I think – it’s time to take a good hard look and see what this means to me, to my destiny.  Where do I draw a line between being a follower and thinking for myself, should I express doubts, should I trust my own judgment above all else. Should I read a lot and become a scholar, should I influence policy, should I facilitate change, should I be an arm-chair activist (what’s wrong with that), should I be a radical anti-fundamentalist, should I be a radical ant-casteist, should I fight for women’s rights, what about children, should I write (documentation, documentation), should I write a book, should I hobnob with media, should I work with an NGO, what about my family, what salary should I get, should I do research, what about a PhD,……………………….How do I help people, do people really need my help, am I dispensable or indispensable. If I am indispensable, when will I know it has gone to my head and power drives me? If I am dispensable, why do I bother?

Just for clarity, I put it into boxes………….

On being compassionate……

The definition of Compassionate is “Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it”. That’s a good feeling to have, in my opinion. Deep awareness is important. So how does one gain it? Not just by reading or discussion, I think. You can have awareness with these two, but for deep awareness, there is a need to introspect and experience. So plus points for that.

On being passionate….

The definition is “A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger”. Is that a good thing?? Hard one to answer, problem being, it’s hard to feel one emotion passionately without feeling the others too. Hard to be passionate about love and un-passionate about anger. Question is – Is passionate anger dangerous? Is passion self destructive? Can passion be controlled or tamed or channeled? Can passion co-exist with rationality, foresight and clarity of thought? Not sure………..

On grassroots……..

For some reason, I dislike the word grassroots. The Wikipedia says “A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Grassroots movements are often at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party.

I don’t think I can be a grassroots person. I don’t even know what the word means. I shall henceforth remove this word from my dictionary.


 The International Society for Equity in health defined ‘Equity’ as:  “the absence of potentially remediable, systemic differences in one or more aspects of health across socio-economically, demographically or geographically defined population groups or subgroups.”

Thematic areas to improve equity are thought to be leadership, systems, services, accountability and citizen’s capacity.

The principles of action to address global health inequities are improving living and working conditions, enabling healthier lifestyles, decentralized power and decision making/encouraging citizen participation in policy making, conducting health impact assessment of multi-sectoral actions, keeping equity on the global agenda, assuring high quality of health services and access, research monitoring and evaluation.

Can I bring about equity? Can I do it as an individual, as a manager, as a project co-ordinator, as a policy maker? Will equity issues conflict with quality issues? What if the best person for the job I want is not an equitable choice? Should I let my project suffer, or should I sacrifice equity to ensure maximum benefit for the majority? As a policy maker, which group do I help – dalits, women, children, disabled, mentally ill, Muslim, transgender, Christian? Can I help bring out policies that ensure multi-sectoral participation in global equity? Is this realistic? Can I do it alone? Do I not need forces around me that align around this same issue? If those forces don’t exist and are working at tandem, will I make any difference? Is there a common understanding and practice of equity? Is my definition the same as someone else? Who will convince those at the benefiting end of non-equity? Will they not fight tooth and nail to prevent equity? Are they not much more powerful forces than me?

Equity is a nice word. I think I will keep it in my vocabulary – but how I use it, when I use it, for whom – these are unresolved questions.

What about research?

Here comes a big wig mind boggler. Research from the Government helps me no end. It shuts arguments when I quote Commissions and surveys done by the Government. It has a stamp of authority about it. But what about the rest of research? When there is a human rights violation in front of your eyes, is that your evidence base? How does this research get collated? The beauty of research is that it can give you the answers you want. Research is corrupt, unreliable, driven by hidden agendas, selfish motives, unethical objectives and shaky basis. Research can drive the power machinery. Research is a bad word, more misused than any other.

“Women want private health care” screams one paper. “ Hindu mothers want circumcision” scream the “Circumcision to prevent HIV’ groups, “People are willing to pay more for better health”, “Strengthen tertiary care and primary care will improve automatically”. Case studies are another bad word. A case study showed success, so grab the idea and ‘scale up’. How do you scale up without consideration of quality, regulation, management, accountability?

 Capture of state government decision makers by these ‘case study’ experts. “Sir/Madam, it worked in my PHC in the middle of nowhere. Give me money and I will do the same in the state and then country. I singlehandedly can do it.’

Money from the government passes hands based on these stupid research findings. Who’s research, for whom and for what purpose? How do you unravel devious lies in paper submissions, in objectives, in methodology, in analysis? Is the Lancet beyond being corruptible? No. That truth hurts. There is no research body that is non-corruptible, so what research? Why?

I think supporting national and state research would be in the best interest. NGOs can’t do research that become Gospel truths. Pushing our research agenda and outcomes onto the state to ensure large scale implementation is criminal. State systems are vulnerable. They need support, not a full scale hijack.


SO……….. how transparent is transparent?  It’s the new mantra but it’s what everyone demands of everyone else. How transparent should an organization be? Does it vary with the type of organization? Should you be transparent about your failures? About the projects that failed? About your multiple sources of funding? Who should you be transparent to? Saying be transparent to the community is arbitrary. Should there be a centralized regulatory body?


Nice word, sounds good. It means I go beyond myself to why I am here in the first place. I like the word. I think I shall do it regularly – this empowering business. Empower dalits who are getting raped and ravaged while their upper caste brethren sit around in armchairs around the world discussing their sorry fate, empower women, not in some stupid feminist kind of way but a little more different.

So what do I do?

Should I join an NGO or a research institution? Do a PhD or a Masters? Be an expert or informed? Should I write evidence based papers or emotional articles? Should I earn money or make sacrifices? Should I follow the paths already trodden or create new ones? Should I work alone or with people? Should I work at the State or at the community?

But what are my strengths?

I am compassionate and kind. I speak to people, I can communicate. I challenge people. I question. I write. I read. I speak. I see. I observe. I learn. I trust. I doubt. I respect. I argue. I paint.

What should I do with these strengths?

Write a book




Will I make a difference?

…………maybe not but at least I tried.


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